COVID-19, Student writing, teaching

Pandemic Souvenirs

The last thing I ever need is more mugs. 

Well, maybe the truly last thing I need is more canvas tote bags – but mugs may come in a close second. I do have a lot of books also, but . . . I will always need more books, let’s be real. A mug is such a frequent prize or souvenir, a popular, inexpensive and easily brand-able giveaway in a goodie-bag. In spite of the fact that our cabinet is overfull of mugs (in further spite of my having done a couple of significant mug-purges in my mug-owning life), I still welcome mugs into my world. I don’t actively seek them out, though. I may pick one up from time to time, from the display shelf of the artist co-op, but I have trained myself to put them back again and walk away. I don’t buy mugs anymore. My partner doesn’t buy mugs anymore. They find their way to me, to us. Over this past pandemic year, three new mugs joined the exclusive collection in our kitchen cabinet. 

A brown coffee mug with a logo for Surly Brewing Company
Image by Liz Ahl

This first mug arrived in August 2020, with no indication as to who’d sent it. No note. Right from the brewery, which is in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was someone who knows that our home is called “Surly Acres.” Surly Brewing had to close their Beer Hall at the end of October, due to revenues being down 82% (compared with the same period the previous year) since the pandemic’s start. 

There was some speculation that they closed the Hall as a union busting move in response to their employees announcing an effort to unionize. The vote to unionize failed in early October, by one vote. The company is still brewing and selling beer, and the Beer Hall is still closed. I’m not sure what the status of the unionizing effort is at present. A more recent vote to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama also failed. I have served as a member of our university’s Faculty Union negotiating team this year – and it has been pretty strange and sometimes not so great trying to renegotiate a fair and transparent contract over Zoom during a pandemic, on top of the ongoing dismantlement and defunding of higher education, on top of everything else. 

The very notion of “working conditions” (“learning conditions!” “living conditions!”) has taken on new textures and urgencies — for our faculty, staff and students, as well as residents of the small New England town where our university has existed for 150 years. Since March 2020, the “work” many of us are doing — to learn, to live — has shifted profoundly, to varying ends. Much has been written by people smarter than I about all that has been revealed by both the pandemic and by responses to the pandemic.  And of course the financial “conditions” within which public higher education, especially in New Hampshire, has struggled to survive, already desperate in pre-COVID years, were further revealed, amplified, and, by some, leveraged as reasons to, oddly, cut even more deeply, as the pandemic’s conditions were added to the mix. 

***

When I received that Surly Brewing mug, I reached out on Facebook to see if I could get the secret gifter to identify themselves, but nobody ever claimed credit – so I still don’t know who sent it. It’s a good, solid mug. Decent size. You could see drinking beer from it, as it’s got a mild “tankard” vibe, though so far I’ve only had coffee. 

A white coffee mug with an orange handle, with the all caps text "YOU'RE ON MUTE" and a red microphone icon with a slash through it
Image by Liz Ahl

The second mug, sporting the text “YOU’RE ON MUTE,” arrived right around Christmas – again, anonymously. Again, I posted a photo on Facebook, with the caption, “I feel seen. (But not heard.)” Under the caption, I wrote, “THANK YOU to whoever sent this to me, possibly someone with whom I spent a lot of time in Zoom these last months, someone who has witnessed and can attest to my ongoing struggle with the un/mute function.” 

Teaching remotely for the first time over the last year, not by choice, to students who are learning remotely, some for the first time, some not by choice, has troubled assumptions or habits of my own teaching in productive, fascinating, frustrating, helpful and sometimes paralyzing ways. It has stirred up old insecurities and nurtured new ones. Some of what is being troubled by teaching online was already shifting in my third decade of teaching. Much of what is being troubled has needed troubling. 

I have been thinking about the myth (it feels like a myth) of “synchronicity” embedded in ubiquitous questions about “asynchronous versus synchronous online courses.” I have, perhaps more importantly, been reflecting on how that myth or set of assumptions has infused so much of my teaching in the physical classroom. I have been thinking about (a)synchronicity with respect to important (to me) pedagogical notions such as accident and improvisation and surprise and planning and emergence. I have also been wading a little further, if still gracelessly, into “ungrading.” 

The use of Zoom as the main way of connecting with students, advisees, colleagues, and friends, is exhausting. Zoom takes energy from me that it does not give back the way I have found that being in a live classroom gives back. The “option” (is it really an option if the conditions of the pandemic forced the choice?) to learn from a distance has been a real boon to some of my students, or so they tell me, and a real burden for others and, I think, a mixed bag for many. I’m guessing the same is true for some of my colleagues, but am curious to know more.

One Zoom boon for me has been a new degree of access to talks, seminars, workshops, and especially readings and Q&A’s with poets I’d not otherwise be able to hear “live” because of geographic distance. For readings I haven’t been able to attend, there are often (not always) recordings I can view later. I do occasionally feel strange guilt (?) for not taking even more advantage of the bounty that is available via Zoom, especially with regard to poetry readings — but I am spending so much time on the screen, I feel like I need extra or different “rest.” The bounty can be exhausting. 

An old, dear friend (also a colleague) did confess to having sent me this mug. It was a much needed and appreciated gesture and moment of levity. I haven’t used this mug as much as the Surly one. I should bring it into the rotation.

***

In the mid-Fall of 2020, I stopped making the trip onto campus to be Covid-tested – because – why bother? I was teaching remotely. True, it meant I wasn’t allowed on campus or in campus buildings at all, but I started to feel, as winter crept in, that it might actually be more risky to go in to get tested than to stay home and not be tested. For the most part, I wasn’t going anywhere besides the Rite-Aid drive through and the Local Foods Plymouth curbside pickup. The only time I entered another building besides our house was to go to my regular required blood tests at the health clinic, and a few times to the post office. Both of those experiences masked and very brief, in the five to ten minute zone. The thought of going to stand in line for a possibly longer time than that, and among a possibly bigger number of folks, many of whom were spending time in residence halls and classrooms together, just didn’t make sense. Also, I think it was making me increasingly sad and anxious to go onto the quiet pandemic campus, the masked and socially distant campus, the once-familiar-now-strange campus where I was only a visitor. Of course it was also making me sad and anxious not to go onto campus. It has been a sad and anxious time. Maybe mugs — with their attendant connotations of cozy warm beverages, steam rising, or maybe a mug of soup — symbolize for me a kind of comfort or deep, common familiarity.

At the end of February, 2021, a box arrived in the mail from a friend and colleague, Amanda. I opened up the box to find a blue #PanthersUnited wristband – which was how they were tracking which students had gotten a particular week’s Covid test on my college campus; a set of “honey spoons” (solid honey on the end of a stick so you can stir it into your tea); and a “First Fire” mug. And a very kind and loving note, so needed. I wrote at the time, “I have not once ever been so moved by the gift of a mug.” 

A photograph of a white coffee mug for "First Fire 2020 Plymouth State University," a package of clover honey "spoons", a blue "Panthers United" wristband, and an envelope with the word "Hi" written on it
Image by Liz Ahl

Amanda, who was being COVID-tested on campus, knew I would be especially happy to get one of the 2020 First Fire mugs they were handing out that day. On our campus, “First Fire” is a recent tradition, but already a well-loved one, during which the first fire of the fall is lit in the fireplace in our student union building. Folks come and enjoy donuts and coffee or hot cider in that year’s commemorative mug. And, most years, I write and recite a poem for the occasion. The poem is, I’m afraid, what you have to endure to get your free mug and donut. I try to keep it short.

A woman with long brown hair and glasses, wearing a purple shirt, speaks at a podium displaying four coffee mugs
Me reading a poem at the 2015 Plymouth State University “First Fire”

There was an attempt to hold a kind of socially distanced pandemic version of First Fire for this past fall, but it never quite came together. But they’d ordered the mugs already. Maybe far in advance? Ordering the mugs seems like an optimistic move. I did not start drafting a poem ahead of time for the occasion; I pretty much didn’t write a poem from May until December. Had I been pressed, I’m afraid I couldn’t have summoned the lightness or cheer such an occasion seems, reasonably, to ask for. But I was not pressed.

I haven’t had a drink from the 2020 First Fire mug yet. I need to remedy that. I’m more of a coffee drinker, but I should have at least one cup of tea in this mug, so I can swirl the honey stick in it, for the full effect. 

***

I have collected, not entirely intentionally, a number of souvenirs from this year, though to call some of them souvenirs feels a little strange. But also right. A small collection of cotton masks made by a local acquaintance, from different fun fabrics. The playlists of recorded Zoom poetry readings, many of which I’ve attended “live” through the screen. A year’s worth of the town’s weekly newspaper. A good deal of student writing about their pandemic experiences. The stash of letters and postcards I’ve accumulated since last summer, when I posted online that if anybody wanted me to write to them, they should message me their mailing address. I wrote and am still writing a lot of letters and postcards – and so many folks wrote (and still write!) back. 

With my students in Composition and Advanced Composition this semester, I did some brief in-class writing, discussion, peer feedback and assignment-prompting around totems, artifacts, and other significant objects. This was inspired in large part by the commemorative exhibition at my university, marking its 150th birthday with 150 objects. When I was thinking about how to spark conversation about how common, familiar objects might be made strange and powerful because of our own experiences and imaginations, I wanted to bring my own examples as a way of sharing a little bit of myself across the physical (and other) distances between me and my students. 

With my Composition students, I shared a twist-tie — you know, the kind that holds the plastic bag of a loaf of bread closed. By shared, I mean, I dug it out of the travel toiletries kit  where it has lived for years, biding its time. By shared, I mean, I held it up to the Zoom camera and told them how when we scattered my dad’s ashes into the Hood Canal five years ago, they were in a plastic bag, tied with this twist-tie, which, when I opened the bag, I stashed thoughtlessly in my pocket. Later, at home, getting ready for bed I guess, I rediscovered the twist-tie, and it was as if I was pulling from my pocket a different object than I had tucked in there hours before. Before scattering dad’s ashes with my mom and brother. Before coming home again to the house without him. Instead of tossing the twist-tie in the trash, I tucked it into my toiletries kit.  

In Advanced Composition, for one class session, I asked us all to check out the online “150 objects” exhibition and to bring to class at least one object of our own that held special personal significance. An object with a story, one we’d be comfortable sharing. I set up a Google document called “Museum of YOU” and invited students to share photos of their object(s) there. The Surly Brewing mug at the start of this essay was one of three objects I brought to our collective museum that day. I have since shared this essay (in earlier draft form, and now in this later draft) with my students. The insightful feedback I got from my Advanced Composition students in particular has really helped me continue to develop this draft, though it also still feels unfinished. As I type this, slogging towards the end of April, the semester is unfinished, the pandemic is unfinished, the essay is unfinished.

***

Many folks will have souvenirs from this time — and not just physical objects. Some of the souvenirs may feel like wounds, may be wounds. Some will carry and endure for the rest of their lives the deeply embodied and long-term physical and emotional consequences of “surviving” COVID-19. So many have died. So many have lost loved ones. Can an absence be a souvenir? Can a wound? I worry that it’s not the right word. Souvenirs not to “have” like one “has” snow globes or commemorative coins. Souvenirs not sought out but received nonetheless. There are probably souvenirs of my experience of this time that I will hardly, if ever, be able or willing to fully comprehend or claim as such. There are unfinished essays, unfinishable essays, essays unwritten. 

In terms of the physical objects that are named and kept as mementoes, there must be such variety out there. What are your souvenirs? What will you carry, willingly or otherwise, from this time? It is maybe too soon, maybe even too cruel, to ask. But I think there will be the obvious ones, the masks and hospital bracelets, but also the more personal and idiosyncratic and totemic ones – the pandemic souvenir that’s only decipherable as such to one person, but which, to the rest of us, is just a book of poems, or a single knitted sock, or a particular song, or a houseplant, or a twist-tie, or a sturdy coffee mug, one among many, waiting its turn in the cabinet above the coffee pot.

NOTE: I had thought I was going to write more, or revise further, or, I don’t know, have some kind of deeper insight or epiphany, before sharing this more broadly. But yesterday I came upon the photo of me reading at the 2015 First Fire, which reminded me that I had drafted this essay with my students, and that I had wanted to return to it/share it. I added that photo to the essay and changed two words, but otherwise, this draft is as it was in April. It still feels unfinished, but something about the photo made me want to share this essay here. So. Here.

2 thoughts on “Pandemic Souvenirs”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s